Father saw 'horrifying' accident injure son during opera rehearsal

A fire-breathing stilt walker burned when flames flared up on his face during a dress rehearsal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is expected to be released from the hospital Thursday, his father told the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s horrifying,” said Clifton Truman Daniel, 55, who was in the audience watching his son Wesley when the mishap occurred late Monday afternoon. “You don’t believe it. At first, everything’s fine. You’re proud of him. You’re amazed at what he’s learned to do, and suddenly he’s in trouble.”

The 24-year-old actor was taken in serious-to-critical condition to Northwestern Memorial Hospital suffering burns to his throat and second-degree burns to his face, fire officials said. Initially, it was thought Daniel was not suffering breathing problems, but he apparently was and was transferred to Loyola University Medical Center in critical condition, officials said.

Doctors intubated Daniel as a precaution to help him breathe, his father said. But there was no damage to his lungs or airway and the tube was removed Monday night, according to his father.

"Doctors likened them to a severe sunburn and he will heal,” his father said of the burns. “He shouldn’t have any scarring.”

Clifton Daniel said he was happily sitting in the audience of the Lyric Opera, watching his son walk on stilts and spit fire out of his mouth.

He watched as Wesley Daniel picked up a torch and a little jar of fluid and blew two fire balls. Then suddenly his son’s mask was on fire and he started patting his neck and chest before walking across the stage toward stagehands who were carrying fire extinguishers.

Daniel said he ran to his son backstage, where he was being treated with compresses. Paramedics had already been called and his son was upbeat, even giving a thumbs-up, the father said.

Clifton Truman Daniel said he is the grandson of former President Harry S. Truman and Wesley Daniel is the president's great-grandson.

Wesley Daniel said his son graduated from Roosevelt University and has been acting for about three years. He was hired as a back-up for the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” in case someone called in sick or didn’t show up. Wesley Daniel stepped in when an actor was injured last week, his father said.

David Kersnar, who directed Daniel in Lookingglass and Next Theatre productions last year and also worked with him at Roosevelt University, described the young actor as an experienced physical performer with circus training. 

“It was the first time he was on the Lyric stage, but this is what he does,” said Kersnar, a Roosevelt adjunct professor. “He’s very funny, very strong, very skilled and smart. He doesn’t do stupid stuff. I was very surprised to hear this went wrong.”

Kersnar said Daniel performed various stunts for him, such as dressing as an ingenue and lifting the title character of “Pulcinella,” at the Lookingglass performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “This is the actor life. They do a lot of different things. He’s a jack of all trades.”

Kersnar was on his way to visit Daniel in the hospital Tuesday after the actor had emailed him a photo. “He’s all bandaged up but he’s got this funny look in his eyes like, ‘Look at the mess I’ve got myself into,’” Kersnar said.

Tribune photographer Jason Wambsgans, who was at the rehearsal, said it appeared Daniel had spilled propellant "on his chin or his chest or something. It kind of consumed him, and he was staggering across the stage and then fell off his stilts on the opposite side of the stage.”

Wambsgans said he arrived at the rehearsal at the beginning of the third act to take pictures for an upcoming Tribune review of the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.”

The first scene of the third act took about an hour. It was in the second scene when Wambsgans pulled out a telephotoe lens to take pictures of the busy stage full of extras, in this case, circus performers. Daniel was one of them.

When it appeared that Daniel, on stilts, was ready to put some sort of propellant in his mouth to shoot fireballs, Wambsgans said he started snapping and captured the flames flaring up on Daniel.

Wambsgans said he saw people in the wings of the stage spraying Daniel with fire extinguishers. “Half of the extras were transfixed by that,” Wambsgans said.

It took about 15 more seconds before the rest of the extras stopped singing and acting, realizing what had happened, he said.

After a 30-minute break, a visibly distressed crew was back rehearsing, Wambsgans said. But the rehearsal was cut short, ending about 6 p.m.

Daniel was wearing a flame-proof costume and mask, a spokeswoman for the Lyric said in an email.  The dress rehearsal was interrupted, but it later resumed and was in the last act of “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” by about 5:30 p.m.

Daniel was performing a stunt that had been approved by the Fire Department, according to the Lyric.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened up an investigation into the incident after hearing about Wesley’s accident through the media, said spokesman Scott Allen. A compliance officer went to the Lyric Opera House this morning and talked to witnesses and employees to find out what may have caused the accident and if the opera house violated any OSHA regulations, he added.

Drew Landmesser, the Lyric’s deputy general director who focuses on backstage activities, said the company is still trying to determine the accident’s cause.

“We don’t exactly know the cause of the accident, just that it was a terrible accident and he seems to be doing well,” Landmesser said.

He stressed that Daniel was experienced with such a fire-spitting stunt, which he characterized as routine in the entertainment world.

“You’ve seen this a thousand times: at carnivals, at Renaissance fairs, at kids parties,” Landmesser said. “It’s a common routine for a performer like this.”

That said, Daniel was the replacement for a previous performer who was removed after a mishap involving the same stunt.

“He had a handlebar mustache, and handlebar mustaches and fire-spitting don’t go well together,” Landmesser said, noting that the mustache “got singed, but there was no injury.”

Landmesser said Daniel’s mask never caught fire; nor did his costume.

“The fuel he was spitting was the only thing that was on fire,” he said, adding that the stunt has been removed from the production mostly so audience members won’t become distracted during one of the opera’s climatic scenes. “I think that frankly the press made something hysterical that was a rather calm event, but why upset people, let anyone misunderstand what happened or how safe it is?”




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